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Sustainability Connections: Why Water Management Matters

A few months ago a student told me that it was difficult for her to get her dorm mates to understand why they should conserve water. To them, water is always available and long showers enhance creative thinking! And besides, isn’t it included in the fees they pay to live in the dorm? Here are some of the facts she peppered her dorm mates with, to no avail:

  • Only 2.5% of all Earth’s water is the freshwater needed for plants and animals to survive.
  • Only about 1.2% of that 2.5% freshwater is on the surface where it can meet those needs.
  • Only 0.49% of the surface freshwater is in rivers, which is where the majority of water for humans originates.

Wow. That math challenge comes out to about 0.0002% of all water! But the student lost me at the start. I still didn’t get why I should cut my shower short!

So how can we do a better job of connecting the dots to get the behavior change we need? As we noted in a previous blog post on changing behavior for energy conservation, one way is to explain the big picture in real life terms.

Real life situations. One of the biggest challenges in water conservation is that freshwater is not equally distributed on the planet. Here in the northeast, water scarcity is not an everyday problem right now. Yet, on the other side of the country, much of California and its neighboring states are in year three of a severe drought. This drought is on track to be the worst the area has seen since 1850. But we have a heck of a lot more people there than we did back then! Finding a solution is becoming increasingly difficult. Here are some of the facts:

  • The water content in California’s mountain snow pack is at a record low and state reservoirs are far below capacity. In February, citizens had to reduce their water consumption by 20%. This meant cutting back on everyday activities such as showering, watering lawns, and washing cars. Do you know anyone who lives there?
  • In parts of the southwest, farmers are unable to plant crops, and tens of thousands of workers in the agricultural sector are at risk of losing their jobs. Cattle ranchers are slaughtering cattle and getting the meat to market, because their grazing fields have withered and died without rain. Do you know anyone affected by this?

The reality of the situation is stark, and for the western edge of the U.S., conservation is a survival practice.

Some bring-it-home questions: We may let cattle go to slaughter early, but we aren’t going to let people in the southwest die of thirst, right? So where will the water come from? How will we get it to them? Will others’ scarcity become our scarcity? How much should we conserve? These are the kinds of questions that help people get on the conservation bandwagon.

Other reasons to conserve: In places with a secure water supply, better water management through conservation can lessen the brunt of water scarcity when it does occur. And, without conservation, our growing population alone may make water scarcity a reality for many who now enjoy unlimited access to water.

Increasing conservation reduces stress on the existing water supply infrastructure and extends its life. We can also use water conservation to reduce wastewater. This does three things: it avoids overburdening our wastewater treatment plants; it delays the need for new infrastructure, and it helps protect our rivers and streams from excess wastewater discharge.

Good water management can save you money on your water. It can also save on energy bills, because when you use less water, you use less energy to purify, transport, and pump the water through your home or office.

Conserve now! Conserving water now helps secure the resources that we have today for a future when our needs will likely be greater. To get a sense of where things stand on a current basis, you can check out this drought map! Blue is the new gold!